The Wheelwright a Crucial Person in the Village

The craft of the wheelwright is one of the oldest trades. The earliest examples of solid wheels trace back to 5000 BC, and spoked wheels appeared in Asia Minor by 2000 BC.

A well-preserved Bronze Age wheel was unearthed in Peterborough, UK, with other ancient wheels discovered in various parts of Britain, including those preserved in Irish bogs and of Roman date from Somerset and Edinburgh. Evidence of trade in wheel parts has been found at Vindolanda, a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall.

By the nineteenth century, virtually every village had a wheelwright, an essential figure for transporting goods by cart. However, the rise of motorised transport and the introduction of metal wheels led to a decline in this traditional craft.

The craft evolved significantly, particularly in the Victorian era, which influences the restoration of antique vehicles today and inspires the design of modern wooden-wheeled vehicles.

The prevalent method of wheel making, developed in the mid-eighteenth century, involves using a tyre shrunk onto the wheel to compress and hold it together.

The techniques vary slightly from other wood-related trades due to the specific forces exerted on wheels during use. It is crucial for the wheelwright to fully understand these forces, making it beneficial for them to be familiar with the specific vehicle being repaired and to observe it in operation.
It is crucial for the wheelwright to fully understand these forces. Image Credit: John Tarlton Collection

This technique, once utilised by the Celts, had vanished in Western Europe after the Roman Empire’s fall. Developments in the late nineteenth century included the addition of solid rubber cushioning to iron tyres, which were shaped into a channel to accommodate it.


As mentioned previously, the history of the wheelwright in Britain begins with the arrival of the wheel itself, which is believed to have been introduced around 3500 BC, possibly through cultural exchanges with continental Europe.

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The earliest British wheels were solid discs, carved from a single piece of wood, likely used for carts and chariots. With the Bronze Age (around 2500 BC to 800 BC), improvements in tools and techniques allowed more complex wheel designs, including spoked wheels, which made vehicles lighter and faster.

The Wheelwright

In a time when roads were rough and transport options were limited, the reliability of a wheel could mean the difference between profit and loss, success and failure, life or death.

Wheelwrights crafted each wheel with precision, ensuring they could withstand long journeys on uneven terrains. This was not just about forming the perfect circle; it involved selecting the right materials, understanding seasonal wood expansion and contraction, and mastering techniques that had been honed over centuries.

Wheelwrights in their workshop - not the young lads that have started their apprenticeship.
Wheelwrights in their workshop – note the young lads that have started their apprenticeship.

Wheelwrights worked with a variety of woods, each chosen for its specific properties. Oak, known for its toughness and resilience, was commonly used for spokes, while elm was preferred for hubs due to its ability to resist splitting under heavy loads. Ash, flexible and strong, was ideal for creating the curved parts of the wheel.

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The intricate process of shaping these woods, assembling them into a cohesive and sturdy structure, required not only physical strength and dexterity but also an in-depth knowledge of traditional joinery and ironwork.

The collaboration between wheelwrights and blacksmiths was essential, particularly in fitting iron tyres to wooden wheels. This process, known as ‘hooping,’ involved heating the iron tyre before placing it onto the wheel.

The Wheelwright, Versatile Figures

As the tyre cooled, it would contract, binding tightly to the wheel and increasing its durability. The precision with which this was carried out affected the quality and lifespan of the wheel, showing the wheelwright’s skill in ensuring a perfect fit. You may have seen traces of these in villages, often a stone or concrete circle in the ground.

Wheelwright’s Workshop, Cotehele Mill, Bohetherick, Cornwall, England

Beyond their primary function of making wheels, wheelwrights often took on related tasks. They repaired carts, wagons, and later, agricultural machinery, making them versatile figures in the community.

Their role expanded further with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, adapting their skills to more complex machinery and contributing to advances in industrial technology.

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The trade required a comprehensive apprenticeship, starting from a young age. Apprentices would learn not only the technical skills needed to craft and repair wheels but also the business acumen required to run a workshop.

This included managing finances, understanding the supply chain of materials, and dealing with customers. The transmission of this knowledge was critical to the sustainability of the craft, ensuring that skills were passed down through generations.

Medieval Wheelwright Advancements

This era was marked by substantial progress in the design and construction of wheeled vehicles, which played a crucial role in both agricultural practices and the burgeoning urban trade networks.

During the early medieval period, the basic wheel designs evolved from the solid, cumbersome wheels of antiquity to more sophisticated and efficient structures. The introduction of the spoked wheel was a big advancement.

While large enterprises might employ their own wheelwrights, there was a broad demand for their skills among the general population, particularly from farmers, cab owners, and carters.

These wheels were lighter and faster, offering greater maneuverability and less resistance, which was particularly advantageous for carts and carriages used in agriculture and transportation of goods. The spoked wheels were vastly more expensive but highly functional.

The craft of the wheelwright became increasingly specialised as the demand for more diverse types of wheeled vehicles grew.

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The design of wheels diversified to suit various functions, from heavy, durable wheels for ploughs and carts used in farming to more delicate and agile wheels for carriages used by the nobility and for long-distance travel.

This period also saw the development of the hub-and-spoke system, which significantly improved the wheel’s strength and functionality by distributing weight more evenly across the structure. One of the most notable advancements in wheelwrighting during the medieval period was the widespread adoption of iron rims

Wheelwright’s form, Moretonhampstead, Devon, England

The medieval wheelwright’s workshop became a hub of activity, often located at the heart of the village or town. Here, knowledge was passed from master to apprentice, ensuring the continuity and refinement of wheel-making techniques.

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The wheelwright’s role was supported by the rise of guilds during the High Middle Ages, which regulated trade practices, upheld quality standards, and provided training for apprentices. These guilds played a crucial role in elevating the status of wheelwrights, establishing them as respected artisans within the medieval economy.

Guilds and Trade Networks

The expansion of the wheelwright profession in medieval Britain was significantly influenced by the establishment of guilds and the growing trade networks of the era.

These guilds, which emerged prominently during the medieval period, played a central role in shaping the practices, standards, and economic status of wheelwrights.

Guilds were essentially associations of artisans and traders that banded together to protect their common interests and maintain high standards within their crafts.

For wheelwrights, joining a guild meant gaining access to a supportive network of peers who shared knowledge and skills.

Wheel Wrights Oven at East Walton, Norfolk. A plaque reads… A fire in this building was used to heat the iron tyres of farm tumbrils and wagons. It was in use until about 1940.

These organisations regulated the trade, setting standards for the quality of work, dictating the terms of apprenticeship, and ensuring fair business practices. They also provided a form of social security, supporting members in times of illness or financial hardship.

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The guilds wielded considerable power, often influencing local government decisions related to trade and commerce. They could negotiate better terms for their members, such as securing prime locations in markets or obtaining the right to be the sole providers of certain goods and services within a town or city.

For wheelwrights, this meant a secured demand for their wheels and carts, essential for a range of activities from agriculture to transportation of goods.

The Wheelwright Was in Demand

As trade networks expanded across medieval Britain and beyond, the demand for transportation solutions grew. Roads were being developed and trade routes established, necessitating reliable and efficient means of transport.

Wheelwrights found their skills in high demand, and the guilds often facilitated their integration into these broader networks. They could negotiate contracts for supplying wheels and carts for merchant caravans, military campaigns, and agricultural needs.

J Plater’s Cart, Van & Carriage Works in Haddenham, Bucks c.1903. Management, Blacksmith, Wheelwrights & Coachbuilders pose for this picture

Guilds played a crucial role in the dissemination of technological innovations and improvements. Through the mobility of traders and the connectivity of different towns and regions, wheelwrights were exposed to new ideas and techniques from across Europe.

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This exposure was crucial during a time when innovations such as the iron-rimmed wheel were revolutionising the trade. Guild meetings and workshops became sites where wheelwrights from various parts of the country could converge, share ideas, and learn from one another, and that no one was left behind, they were up to date with the latest advancements.

The Industrial Revolution

As Britain shifted from agrarian-based economies to industrial powerhouses, the changes brought about were both challenging and opportunistic for wheelwrights.

Initially, the blossoming industries required massive quantities of transportation for raw materials like coal, iron, and timber, which significantly increased the demand for wagons and carts.

This surge meant that wheelwrights were busy fulfilling orders, leading to a temporary boom in their trade. However, the very nature of these demands also pushed the profession to evolve.

Even the humble wheelbarrow needed the wheelwright

The traditional wooden wheels needed to be stronger and more durable to transport heavy industrial goods, which led to innovations such as the iron-strapped wheel and later, the fully metal wheel.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the advent of mechanisation introduced new materials and techniques. The development of steam-powered machinery and the railway dramatically altered the transportation landscape.

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Railways, offering quicker and more efficient means of moving goods and people, began to eclipse the need for horse-drawn transportation. This shift reduced the demand for traditional wheelwright services, compelling them to adapt to a changing market.

Time for Change

Many wheelwrights transitioned into related fields, using their skills in new contexts. Some turned to the railway industry, crafting wooden components for railway carriages or repairing wooden parts of the infrastructure.

Others found opportunities in the emerging automotive industry, applying their expertise to the early motor vehicles that still relied heavily on wooden body parts and frames.

Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution also introduced new production methods, such as the assembly line, which standardised many components of manufacturing. This standardisation conflicted with the traditionally bespoke nature of wheelwrighting, where each wheel or cart was custom-made to suit specific needs.

Place names clues…

As mass-produced vehicles and parts became commonplace, the bespoke craftsmanship of the wheelwright was less sought after, leading to a decline in the traditional form of the trade.

However, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was not solely negative. It also led to technological advancements that wheelwrights could harness.

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For instance, new tools and machinery derived from industrial technology enabled wheelwrights to work more efficiently and with new materials, such as rubber and steel. This allowed those who adapted to continue their trade alongside modern developments.

Wheelwright Decline

At the start of the century, wheelwrights were still relatively commonplace, with their skills applied not only to the maintenance and making of wheels for carts and wagons but also to an array of other wooden items essential in rural and urban settings alike.

However, as the automotive industry grew, the demand for motor vehicles surged, overshadowing the need for horse-drawn conveyances.

Cars and lorries, which required entirely different manufacturing skills and technologies, became the dominant mode of transport, and the traditional wooden wheel became obsolete for most practical purposes.

Wheelwrights Arms, Matfield, Kent, England

The two World Wars also had a profound impact on the wheelwright trade. During these times, materials like metal and rubber were in high demand for the war effort, which led to restrictions on their use in other industries.

Although this could have been an opportunity for wheelwrights to step in with their wooden designs, the wars instead accelerated technological advancements in vehicle production and hastened the transition away from wood-based construction.

Post-war recovery efforts and economic changes further cemented the move towards more modern materials and techniques in manufacturing.

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The rise of mass production techniques, especially after World War II, meant that fewer items were handcrafted. Factories producing metal and plastic goods could achieve much higher output at lower costs compared to the labor-intensive methods of traditional wheelwrights.

The economies of scale realised by these factories made it difficult for small workshops to compete, leading to a decline in artisanal trades including wheelwrighting.

Despite the decline, some wheelwrights adapted by shifting their focus from transportation to restoration and the conservation of antique vehicles and machinery.

How to Make a Wheel

The essential components of a wooden wheel include the nave (or hub), spokes, felloes (or felly), and tyre (or tire).

The nave forms the central part of the wheel, functioning as the hub in wooden-spoked wheels. Each spoke is joined to the nave through a process known as tennoning. Older wheel designs featured a 6-inch sleeve over the axle to prevent wobbling, requiring regular lubrication. Modern carriage wheels, however, incorporate bearings to facilitate smoother motion.

Spokes are wooden rods connecting the nave at one end to the felloe at the other.

Felloes are the curved wooden segments that collectively form the wheel’s rim when pieced together, attaching to the outer ends of the spokes. The spelling “felly” is also used. The number of felloes needed depends on the wheel’s size and the specific regional or historical design, ranging from two half-circle pieces to multiple segments per wheel, generally supporting at least two spokes each.

The rim refers to the wheel’s outer edge, although sometimes the term “rim” is used interchangeably with “tyre.”

The tyre, usually made of iron or steel, forms a protective outer band around the felloes. It is traditionally heated and placed around the rim in a hoop form; as it cools, it contracts, tightening the joint connections between the spokes, felloes, and nave, which enhances the wheel’s overall strength and rigidity. On paved roads, metal tyres can be quite noisy, prompting the use of solid rubber tyres set within a metal channel in many carriage wheels.

In arid conditions or over time, the wheel’s wooden components can shrink, loosening the metal tyre. To address this, the tyre would be periodically removed, heated to ‘shrink’ it, and then refitted to secure the wheel’s structure tightly again. The tools used for this process were known as “tire upsetters” or “tire shrinkers.”

When you pass through villages, keep an eye for clues, you may often see a cottage called ‘Wheelwrights’ or ‘Wheelwrights Cottage’. Or a metal or stone tyring form in the ground. Their legacy lives on.

A Tyring Platform

Or tyring plate, is a circular metal or stone surface used to fit a metal tyre or rim onto a wooden wheel. These platforms were ubiquitous when such wheels were essential for the numerous carts, carriages, and wagons prevalent in society, making them standard equipment for any wheelwright.

A great example here from the wheelwrights –

The metal tyre or rim would be heated until it expanded, allowing for easier fitting onto the wheel. The platform served to support both the heated metal and the wooden wheel during this process.

Due to the high temperatures, the wooden wheel often risked catching fire, necessitating the use of water to extinguish any flames.

The requirement for a bonfire or furnace to heat the tyres often meant that several tyres would be fitted simultaneously in a batch, making a strong and stable platform essential. These platforms were typically made from durable materials like stone or iron, designed circular to accommodate even the largest wheels, and featured a hole or rod to secure and position the wheel’s hub.